As my Legal Writing students reminded me the other day, it’s one thing to know a word when reading. It’s another to figure out how to use it correctly in writing.
In this case, the troublesome legal English word is “precedent.” Below are a few sample sentences from my students’ writing with attempts to use the word:
“According to the precedent case, the police officer’s supervisor issued a ticket to a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground.”
“The precedent shows that coffee poured on the ground is not litter while a candy wrapper is litter.”
“The precedent is the police officer’s supervisor has issued a ticket to a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground.”
“One precedent is that a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground was issued a littering ticket.”
Grammatically, these sentences are fine. Yet, as a native English speaker and teacher of legal writing, the use of “precedent” sounds decidedly off. But why? What you might find yourself saying is, “It just doesn’t sound right.” Yet that feels like an insufficient explanation given that the fundamental ability a non-native English speaker lacks is the ability to know what sounds right.
In the article, Elizabeth–one of the founders of the ETLEP legal English Google Group together with Alissa Hartig, Lindsey Kurtz and me following the 2015 Global Legal Skills Conference in Chicago–distinguishes between coherence (top down: does it make sense?) and cohesion (bottom up: does it feel connected and logical?) A text can be coherent, i.e., you understand what the writer is saying, yet lack cohesion, i.e., the ideas feel disjointed and unnatural in some way you can’t quite put your finger on.
The article explains how cohesion can be lexical (e.g., use of repetition and synonyms) as well as grammatical (e.g., use of conjunctive words and phrases to connect information between sentences; use of a subordinated clause to front information so that it feels connected to information in the previous sentence).
However, the article really grabbed my attention at one point when it described a particular cohesive device that involves use of the pattern: [determiner + abstract noun]. (Determiners include a, an, the, this, these, my, your, which, other, and a bunch of other words you know but just didn’t realize were determiners.) An example might be a sentence along the lines of: Continue reading →
We recently decided to set up a Reading Support program for our LLM students. This was in response to a recent conversation I had with a student I had taught in our summer course who is now full swing into our LLM coursework. Her comment echoed the challenges that a number of her classmates have voiced: It’s hard to keep up with and comprehend all the reading.
Over the last few years, a list of key vocabulary–with definitions–has been developed for the Transnational Legal Practice course that all of our LLM students in the TLP Program take. These are key words, terms, and phrases that all LLM students in the program need to become comfortable with, and it is a work in progress as my colleague Professor Katy Piper continues to add words to the list as appropriate each semester.
The list has over 50 items and includes basic legal terms such as “torts” and “judicial review” as well as specifically transnational legal practice terms such as “letter of credit” and “INCOTERMS”.
A great resource for my ALDA students preparing for the TLP Program! But what to do with it? Just tell them to go home and memorize and then have a test on it?
The other day in class, a student used the word “sin” in class. Given the culturally laden meanings and implications of “sin,” and given my constant emphasis on getting students to define terms in alternative ways, I asked the student to explain “sin” in his own words.
I was expecting something along the lines of “to do something bad” or “an action against what God wants.” But instead the student paused for the briefest moment and then casually offered: “Moral turpitude.”
Blank stares all around. Needless to say, there currently exists a fairly wide gap in the vocabulary levels of my students. And “differentiation” is looking like one of the themes for the semester.
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The Challenge: Helping international students to better read and comprehend law school texts.
Solution #1: Recognize that successful reading is highly dependent on background information.
Take the sentence: “A-Rod hit into a 6-4-3 double-play to end the game.” If a baseball fan reads that, they know exactly what it means as well as what it implies. They can even picture Rodriguez’s head hung low as fans boo the highly paid star of the most famous baseball team who has been tainted by steroids allegations. If you’re an American non-baseball fan, perhaps you can figure out it’s about the final play by a well-known baseball player. And if you come from another country and have no exposure to baseball, then all you likely know is that some sort of game ended.
For all three people, grammar is not the issue. And vocabulary is only part of the issue, as a dictionary would only provide limited assistance in comprehending this sentence. The greatest impediment to understanding is “domain knowledge,” also known as background information.